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Losing Tradition in Luang Prabang

Of course, a city cannot sustain itself simply by restoring existing buildings. Some development is essential, even within the central heritage zone, so LMP has devised strict building codes to control it. New structures must, for example, have clay-tile roofs, rise no higher than a coconut palm, and incorporate traditional design elements.

Rampon pulls out a hefty spiral-bound book. "We tell residents, 'If you want to build, take a look in here; maybe we can help you choose something nice.' " Hundreds of architectural blueprints, with captions in Lao and French, offer acceptable design options for anyone brave enough to try building inside the heritage zone. One chapter illustrates a dozen variations on a door frame; another shows the proper way to fashion a wooden stilt. The book is a veritable catalogue of model medieval houses.

Unfortunately, many Lao aren't sold on the practicalities. Tile roofs are too heavy, they say; decorative door frames are too cumbersome to carve. Some of these residents are instead erecting unabashedly modern buildings, in defiance of the zoning laws. Hence the yellowing of the map.

"People here have no long view," says Rampon. "They want money now. Those who've made money on tourism want to expand or build more—and they're building some ugly, ugly things." Nor does the threat of fines discourage the offenders, since the local government is often too distracted or ineffectual to levy them. "It's anarchy," Rampon says. "We came in with rules, but it's an alien system; so far most Lao refuse to follow them. They put up these illicit buildings knowing they face no risk."

Rampon has a point: preservation may indeed be the only way for Luang Prabang to sustain itself in the long term. But for many residents, the preservation effort is a double-edged sword. To some frustrated entrepreneurs, the infusion of tourists means only so much if they can't erect a new hotel or shop or nightclub to cater to those tourists—or, for that matter, a new (i.e., modern) house for themselves. An industrious shopkeeper selling paper lanterns to foreigners may earn as much as $20 per day, a small fortune here, yet she's forbidden to install, say, a satellite dish on her roof, unless she can somehow carve one out of rosewood. In effect, those who are gaining the most from the heritage designation—the small but growing middle class, many of whom earn a living from tourism—are the ones who feel most hemmed in by it. Those who've witnessed the unbridled pace of development in neighboring Thailand might conclude that preservation has kept Luang Prabang from growing organically and dynamically, in step with the rest of Southeast Asia. Rather, it runs the risk of turning the town and its residents into a museum display, akin to Nepal's Epcot-y Bhaktapur. From their perspective, Luang Prabang is hardly the city that time forgot—it's the place time refuses to let go of.

Monks, it turns out, have a particularly problematic relationship with the heritage laws. When the head of a local monastery wanted to build a better bathhouse, LMP officials were aghast at his plans for a bunker-like block of concrete. "A horrible eyesore," Engelmann recalls. "So we said, 'Hold on, we can help you build something nicer.' The monk says, 'It's our monastery, we'll build what we want.' "

Beyond the aesthetic concerns, the argument was underscored by a fundamental difference in worldviews. Lao Theravada Buddhism places great emphasis on the accumulation of "merit," or karmic grace attained through good works; in the monks' case, merit can be gained by constructing a new bathhouse, not by restoring an existing one. Furthermore, monks are generally more concerned with durability than with "prettiness"; hence the preference for sturdy, affordable materials like steel and concrete. This function-over-form aesthetic—which, in keeping with Buddhism's here-and-now mind-set, finds little value in preservation for preservation's sake—is a source of constant frustration to the UNESCO team.

"Laotians don't have the respect for heritage that Europeans have," Engelmann insists. "Their attitude is, 'Why would I want to live in an old, malfunctioning house?' " It's true: the fetishization of "old, malfunctioning houses" is a particularly European phenomenon, which explains why Europeans are especially enamored of Luang Prabang. If the preservation effort is to succeed, one challenge will be to encourage in residents a sense of attachment to their physical past—to conjure a collective nostalgia into what has been a stubbornly unsentimental culture.

The heritage team, with the building code on their side, eventually won the bathhouse debate. Now, Engelmann reports, the monastery has a "very nice" wooden bathing hut.

And so the battle goes on, one bathhouse at a time. But unapproved restaurants, shops, guesthouses, and residences continue to pop up overnight, and LMP's efforts to control them amount to a citywide game of whack-a-mole.

Just a half-mile south of LMP headquarters, in the heart of the heritage zone, stands a four-story pile of excess called the New Luang Prabang Hotel.With its cheap stucco façade, fake tile roof, and mirrored-glass windows, it calls to mind a high-rise in Miami, a Roman villa, and a bordello in New Orleans—all at once—and it's exactly the sort of mongrel construction that LMP hopes to banish. The upper floors are swathed in enough concrete to withstand a mortar attack. (In light of LMP's threats, that's probably wise.) Colored lights draped across the terrace flash defiantly, as if to say, "Preserve this!"


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